New Materials, Technology Revive Farm Toy Hobby

Modern day makeover: Part 2 of 2

John Deere Model A toy tractor made by Fred Ertl Sr.

When Fred Ertl Sr. made this John Deere Model A as one of his first tractors, he single-handedly started the farm toy revolution. Note the aluminum wheels on this very rare piece.

Bill Vossler

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Fred Ertl Sr. is considered the father of the modern farm toy hobby – but that parenthood happened by accident.

During a 1945 strike, Ertl was laid off from his job as molder at a Dubuque, Iowa, foundry. With a wife and five children to support, he desperately needed a job. What he got was that and more, when the entire farm toy hobby fell into his lap.

It began with Fred Ertl’s son’s cast iron Arcade John Deere Model A toy tractor. When Joe broke the piece, it was up to Dad to fix it. After a bit of tinkering, Ertl figured the toy was not repairable. Instead, he decided to make his son a reproduction of the Model A.

Ertl enjoyed the process, and wondered if he could make toys to sell. That would help bring in some income until the strike ended. So, he created sand molds of three Arcade farm toys. Using his home furnace, he melted aluminum and poured the molten metal into sand molds of a trio of Arcade farm toys: a John Deere A, Allis-Chalmers WC and International Harvester H. After the metal poured into the molds cooled and set, Ertl’s children assembled the pieces into tractors, and his wife painted them.

Metal makes the difference

The concept wasn’t unique, but the metal Ertl used was. Up to that time, farm toys were almost exclusively made of cast iron. However, World War II-era restrictions limited the availability of iron for civilian purposes.

But even if iron had been available, Ertl probably wouldn’t have used it. The melting point of iron is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit; aluminum’s is less than half that at 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit. He would have known that coal-based fires generate temperatures of 1,160 to 1,880 degrees Fahrenheit. That meant he could melt aluminum in his home furnace, but not iron.

As luck would have it, one of Ertl’s neighbors was a buyer for Roshek’s Department Store in Dubuque. When he saw Ertl’s reproduction tractors, he said he would take all Ertl could make, giving birth to a farm toy empire.

Fred Ertl Sr. took to the road to sell his toys. Customers were impressed by the high degree of workmanship. Ertl contacted nearby implement dealers in Dyersville, Winthrop and Cascade for promotions, and met with nothing but success. Dealers and customers alike loved the toys, and Ertl had found his life’s work. 

Spreading the base

Late in 1945, with the toy business going strong, Ertl realized he needed help selling his products. His son, Fred Ertl Jr., traces the transition. “My father met Eldon ‘Bud’ Essman and Lavern D. Kascel, and made an arrangement with them in 1946, whereby they would attempt to sell products with Deere and other logos to what are known today as OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers),” he explains. “This they accomplished. They started Eska in 1946 and were the middleman in selling Ertl products to Deere and later other OEMs.”

The Eska name came from the first two letters of Essman’s and Kascel’s last names. The agreement stipulated that Eska could eventually manufacture farm implements, but not tractors. Ertl retained control over tractor manufacture.

In 1946 (or 1948, references vary), Eska began making stamped-steel farm implements in Dubuque. The company assembled and painted wagons, plows and manure spreaders, selling first to John Deere and later to International Harvester.

Joe Carter of Carter Machine & Tool Co. (CMTC), Rockford, Ill., contracted with Eska to supply stamped-steel implement parts. Although Carter designed many of the components, the finished pieces were assembled by Eska and sold under the Eska name; Carter’s name never appeared on these early Eska implements. “Sometimes, I think it’s hard to differentiate between Carter and Eska,” says Fred Ertl Jr., “because everything was intertwined.”

Bernard Niewind, Eden Valley, Minn., says there are subtle differences. “I’ll tell you how you can tell the Eska IHC 560 from another: The rear axle housing is just like in the 400,” he says. “The axle is made of steel, where all the rest of the tractor is made of pot metal, and the axle is loose. It also has the regular M or 400 front wheels.”

The relationship between Eska and Carter continued until 1952, when the Eska company ran into financial trouble. In repayment of debts owed him by the company, Joe Carter took over Eska Co., and moved it to Rockford, where his Carter Tru-Scale stamping operation was located. Acquisition of Eska gave Carter Tru-Scale the ability to expand its farm toy production. Carter crafted toys under both the Eska and Carter Tru-Scale brand names.

In the mid-1950s, Jim Heller of Eska asked Fred Ertl Sr., to make large, sand-cast riding tractors for Eska. “We made a few of the first pedal tractors,” recalls Fred Ertl Jr. “The first sand castings were made at several casting sources away from the Dubuque area, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the assembly was done at Eska. The Second and Iowa Street location in Dubuque also became the main warehouse where Eska, Ertl, Carter and riding toy products were stored and shipped to Deere branches.”

Fred Ertl Sr. discontinued pedal tractor manufacture in about 1955, and Eska took over that product line. That line of John Deere pedal tractors and trailers is the company’s strongest legacy. In fact, the single most rare farm toy is an Eska-made red John Deere Model A with a coffin-shaped engine.

In late 1959, Eska and Ertl split, and in 1960-61 Ertl obtained licensing rights for Deere, International Harvester, Case, Oliver and Allis-Chalmers.

Carter Tru-Scale Products

Early Carter Tru-Scale farm toys included the 1950 Tru-Scale M and 860 tractors, and combines, discs, elevators, plows and trailers. “All of these implements were working models,” says Doug Harke in Toy Farmer magazine. “Most collectors are familiar with Carter’s earliest implements, which included plows and wagons to be pulled by Allis-Chalmers, Case, Farmall and John Deere tractors. As those implements became dated by release of new models of full-size equipment, Tru-Scale continued the toys with an orange-red/tan paint scheme with Tru-Scale decals. The best example is the John Deere 12A pull-type combine, which was marketed in the 1950s and then replaced by the No. 30 auger combine in the late 1950s.” That same 12A combine was then marketed, clad in red and yellow, as a Tru-Scale combine.

Some Tru-Scale tractor models were sold at hardware and toy stores, like the sand-cast Farmall M, with a steel U-shaped hitch or wire loop for a hitch. In 1962, Tru-Scale introduced its 401 tractor, which resembled the International Harvester 460. Red, green and yellow 890 and 891 Tru-Scale tractors followed. They strongly resembled the International Harvester 806 tractors.

Carter Tru-Scale Products also made a series of 1/16-scale sets in pressed steel. “For a number of reasons Tru-Scale sets are very scarce,” Harke says. “This may be due to low sales figures or hard use by children.” Later, Carter moved to 1/25-scale sets named “Tru-Toy” farm sets.

Collectors like the high quality of Tru-Scale toys. That quality was no accident, says Carter’s son-in-law, George Anderson. When Anderson reported to work at CMTC in 1952, Joe Carter handed him a catalog for a John Deere corn picker and told him to measure a full-size picker, and then make a miniature one. From that information he learned how to make the 1/16-scale toy as he went, making the easiest parts first. He still owns that prototype picker.

At one point, Carter Tru-Scale had a chance to make a huge expansion, selling toys in volume to K-Mart, but Joe Carter didn’t want to expand. He chose to remain independent and pursue the projects of his choice, rather than be held accountable to producing toys to fill orders. Eventually CMTC was sold to Victor Comptometer, at that time the parent company of Ertl Co.

Market explosion

The 1950s saw a proliferation of farm toy companies, perhaps because of the success of Ertl, Eska and Tru-Scale. The upstarts included Slik-Toys, Lansing, Iowa, which manufactured Slik, Lansing and Kipp toys. They made many Slik Oliver, Minneapolis-Moline and Massey-Harris toys. Later, after Arcade Mfg. Co. folded, Slik bought those molds and made Slik toys using Arcade molds. Slik farm toy boxes, especially those for Minneapolis-Moline and Oliver, are some of the most colorful in the business.

Lakone-Classic, Aurora, Ill., entered the farm toy fray in the early 1950s, manufacturing plastic toys like the International Harvester C, 200 and 230 tractors. Product Miniature, Milwaukee, also began making farm toys in the early 1950s. The company produced a few Ford, Allis-Chalmers and International Harvester pieces, mostly tractors but also sets and crawlers, all in plastic.

Another big player during that decade was Reuhl Products, Inc., Madison, Wis. Andy Reul made such fine farm toys that he put himself out of business. Reuhl toys were assembled with screws. If a toy broke, replacement parts could be ordered to make the toy like new. Reuhl’s best-known farm toys are Massey-Harris tractors and combines.

Factoring in SpecCast

Dave and Ken Bell bought SpecCast in 1986 when it was making mostly collectible belt buckles, key chains, statues and a few collectible tractors. “I was working at Ertl’s in charge of farm toys, marketing, licensing and developing products for the replica industry for many years,” Dave explains, “so buying SpecCast was just a natural progression.”

Today SpecCast produces model tractors (not toys, Dave notes, but collectible items) in 50 to 75 versions per year. The company is especially known for its pewter farm models. SpecCast produces a line of pewter J.I. Case tractors, and short runs of tractors originally made by companies that went out of business after limited production.

Scale Models Toys spun off from Ertl Co. in 1977, when Joe Ertl set up his own plant, ensuring domestic assembly of his farm toys. His autographed farm toys are well-known in the industry. Scale Models produces John Deere, Case, Kubota, AGCO, New Holland and other makes, including 1/8-scale farm toys, 1/4-scale pedal tractors and 1/16-scale farm tractors.

Ertl Co., now part of Racing Champions/Ertl of Dyersville, Iowa, produces a wide variety of farm toys ranging from 1/87 to 1/16 scale.

Hobby goes mainstream

Up to the late 1970s, many collectors were closet collectors. “When I was 16 or 17 years old, I was collecting,” says Lyle Hovland, Rothsay, Minn., “but I wasn’t going to let any of my peers know I was playing with toys, or that I liked toys.”

Even in the mid-1980s, collectors were wary about going public. “Collectors are coming out of the closet now,” said the late Claire Scheibe (who launched Toy Farmer magazine) in a 1985 interview. “A grown person can collect farm toys, just like collecting rocks or stamps or coins.”

As farm toy shows became more prevalent, the hobby matured. Collectors wanted models with greater accuracy and more detail. The Ertl Co. responded with its highly detailed (and popular) Precision Series. But the company limits its annual output, leaving collectors wanting more.

Collectors began turning to scratch-builders for specific, highly detailed toys. Early scratch-builders included Gilbert Berg, Martin Fast and Lyle Freiheit, among others, followed by the late Lyle Dingman, Roger Mohr, Weldon Yoder and Eldon Trumm. Today, Gilson Riecke, Paul Stephan, Gary Van Hove, Terry Rouch and others make these much-sought-after models.

Other collectors customize mass-manufactured toys, adding lights, levers, 3-point hitches, front loaders or whatever their real machine had when they operated it on the farm. 

That activity was soon followed by growing interest in dioramas with colorful backgrounds, farm representations with toys in front, and farm layouts. Enthusiasts added scratch-built houses, barns and Quonsets representing farms real and imagined.

Today’s farm toy hobby is an entirely different animal than it was when Fred Ertl Sr. stoked up his furnace in 1945 and launched the modern hobby. Nothing stands still; the hobby will continue to evolve. But realistic, well-made farm toys will always find an enthusiastic audience. Miss the first installment? Read Part 1, “ How Farm Toys Transformed into Collectible Treasure .”  FC